Thursday, March 21, 2013

Exit Here in Bright Neon Lights: Part 3 When Limbs Break aTreeCallsonIt's Roots for Strength

If it wasn't enough to have these difficult driving experiences, it seemed that I was offered some perfect exits to this road which would lead me to the accident that would take my hands. Sometimes, even though the exit signs are in neon lights, the driver doesn't take the exit. I have sat here dumbfounded about how stupid I was not to take the exit and the only reasons I can offer for not leaving the trade were pride and family.

My father had a saying, "There are no such things as friends." Upon further investigation the saying comes from my grandmother. According to my eldest cousin, the full saying is, "There are no such thing as friends. Everyone is family." My father's saying sounds like something 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin would say and my grandmother's saying sounds like something that could come straight out of Jesus' mouth. I believe that naturally my father although he got the saying wrong he taught us the principles of my grandmother's saying.

As a child my father took me to work at his part-time job of cleaning movie theaters at the young age of eight or nine (my memory fails me in my old age). This usually happened somewhere between the hours of midnight to four am and only when we didn't have school. I didn't get paid anything except the coins I managed to find. Some days it was seven cents and some days it was up to three bucks. One day, I even found $100 bill but the rule was anything over five bucks we had to give to our dad. It was a bonus to find any money but my pride came from the greater cause of helping my dad get done faster so he could go to his other job less tired.

He started to bring the other kids along to help as they got older. The scariest part of cleaning the theaters was carrying the full bags of trash to the dumpster. It usually was dark and quiet except except for the gurgling of the creek that ran behind the theaters. I would get spooked from a bird taking off from it's resting spot. When my siblings started to come I chose to be brave because I didn't want my younger siblings to be afraid.

There were some days, when I got older, my father didn't have time to drive us children home. The plan came down that he would drop us off at the bus stop and we would catch the bus home. I remember one time being dropped of on a Saturday at around 5:45 am. The first buses on the weekdays came around 6:15 am to 6:30 am. This Saturday I expected the same thing but the bus on Saturday doesn't come until 9:00 am. After about 30 minutes of waiting in the cold, I grabbed a newspaper and covered myself with it as I laid on the bench. Looking somewhat like a homeless, I napped till the first bus came. Some people might look at this and think, "Whoa!!!! That's child labor!" I didn't think of it that way. It just brought me more pride for helping my family and more stories to tell.

Soon, my other siblings began to come. Knowing that the bus wouldn't come until 9:00 am, I would convince my siblings that we should walk all the way to downtown Salt Lake City. We were walking about 7 miles but we didn't know it. By the time we got downtown, the bus that we usually would transfer to, Magna 37, was starting it's first run. Often we would fall asleep and pass our stop then wake up at the end of the line. The bus driver would kindly let us stay on while he went on the inbound route. We all did it not for the money but for the team.

On memorial day this year, my sister took a phone call from a co-worker. She is the assistant manager at a gas station. The coworker had called in sick on a holiday and she took it upon herself to report in to work. I asked her, "Why in the heck do you answer the phone when you know they are calling in sick?" She snapped back, "Because if I don't the person there will have to stay a double shift." It hit me that she was doing it for the team. A team that in certain situations she considered family because she understood and could put herself in the shoes of her coworker.

During my apprenticeship, there had been several moments where I was scared for my life. I can think of three right now that could have been those exit signs in neon lights. The first one was in orientation. After a week or two, as a new apprentice in the trade, Mountain States Line Constructors Apprenticeship Training called me all the way back from Falcon, Colorado to Salt Lake City, UT for a one week orientation of class and climbing.

As usual in my life, I was good on the class part. It was climbing poles that was difficult. I had bought my climbing tools from e-bay. The belt was too small and the hooks weren't sharp. I kept stepping up the pole and "gaffing out." Gaffing out means that the pointy sharp thing strapped your feet comes out of the pole when you don't want it to in other words falling of the pole. Everyone else was getting climbing.

That week, blisters started forming on the insides of my lower legs from the friction caused by the pads on the apparatus used to strap the hooks to my feet. I kept going up and falling, up and falling and again up and falling. Quitting was not a very viable option to me. I had just left my two jobs to join the apprenticeship without giving two weeks. My current wife had been cheating on me and we were in the process of getting a divorce. I didn't want to come back to Salt Lake City and be around her or the rumors and the whispers at church, in the neighborhood, or the Polynesian Community.

Being cheated on is one of the most painful things I had ever experienced in my life. It felt as if my heart had burst or blown up. I had revolved my life around a person who was revolving her life around someone else. All of a sudden the center of my universe was gone. My heart felt like it only had a little piece of it left. With all that burden inside me, I still continued to try and climb the pole.

Slipping out of the wood and falling was a scary feeling. Hitting the ground from ten feet up was even more scary. I thought about quitting right then and there because I didn't have someone to climb for. Thoughts of returning home popped up in my head. Then I thought, "I can't go back. Not now." I thought of my mom and how I could help her and my dad and how I could help him. I had something to climb for. Although my heart wasn't as strong, it was there and I imagined the little piece that was left beating at the end of some twisted up veins. I stepped on the wood again and up I went.

Near the weeks end, we were to be tested on a pole. We had to climb over two cross arms to the top of a 55 ft pole. I would look at the top of that pole with the fear of god in me, during the week. We were told if we failed that test, we would be sent home. Friday came and it was do or die time.

For the test, we were tied to a safety, so it wasn't do or DIE physically, just literally. I began my ascent, with what felt like all the pressure in the world. Even though I had two safeties there, one connected to my back and the belt around the pole, at 20 feet I began to sweat and my palms were wet. I crossed an arm at 30 ft. To cross an arm, one must unwrap the safety belt, from around the pole, and crawl over the arm with all the trust in the hooks on your feet. These hooks ,that weren't sharp and were bought from eBay, weren't something I would want to trust my life with. I made it over and stood on top of the arm. With fifteen feet and one more cross arm to go, I took a break and looked at the Salt Lake Valley. It was beautiful from up there.

I continued my climb. At that point one must climb sideways and then proceed up because the next crossarm is 90 degrees around the pole. Again, I had to unbelt and crawl over the arm. This time, I only stopped for one breath. I wanted to be done with this test. I looked down at 45 feet and, on my first time at that height, people look like ants. "Self, don't ever look down again!", I told myself. I got to the top and did the task to pass.

Going down was even more scary because you have to look down. But I was in a relieved state of mind. Just like right before my accident, I had done the difficult part of the job and became slightly complacent. I took two steps down and slipped right out of the pole. When bad things happen, I'm a pretty fast thinker. The feel of free fall came over me but the safety on my back caught me and the momentum, that had swung away from the pole, switched and returned to the pole. I hugged the pole with all my might and stuck my feet back in. Quickly, I looked over to see if anyone had seen it. Everyone down there was looking away or down. It seemed they had pretended not to see it.

I had the feeling that I had just failed. When I hit the bottom, I was looking down, with my body language showing failure. The teacher approached me and said, "Congratulations Sam you passed the test." My eyes, hiding behind a pair of safety glasses, had the look of bewilderment. Then the teacher said, "Sam you ride with me back to the classroom."

In the car ride home, the teacher asked me where I was working and if there was any climbing on my job. Then he told me, "Whenever you get the chance, practice." I knew that he knew that I had fallen but I told myself I would practice.

The other apprentices there that day were for the most part having no problem. A year later one of them had commented to me, "Your climbing has gotten way better." Two years from then, another apprentice told me, "I have mad respect for you Sammie. I remember in orientation when you couldn't climb but you never gave up. Every time I looked over to see what you were doing, you would fall but then just go up again." What they didn't know was that, with all that was happening in my life, there was no turning back for me

The second time I was scared for my life was in the Cedar City, Three Peaks Substation. To a know nothing apprentice, sometimes things that are dangerous don't look dangerous at all. Then you learn some things, after a year, and all of a sudden things that aren't dangerous look extremely dangerous. In fact everything seems like it could take your life. In my apprenticeship I was at that stage where I thought every thing could possibly kill me.

On this particular day of work, they were going to pick a huge platform, like the one in the picture below, and put it on top of some 20 foot tall legs, made of insulators.

I didn't know how much the thing weighed, I just knew that it was heavy. The foreman had done a practice pick, the day before setting the platform, and  I remember seeing the outriggers come up on the other side of the crane. A tipping crane is one of the things an apprentice is warned about.

The crane picked the platform 20 feet in the air and swung it over the insulators. Our crew scrambled to tighten the bolts that would hold the platform in place. They got in their manlift baskets and jabbed their spud wrenches into the bolt holes. There was prying and grunting. More pulling and grunting. The platform was fitting right.

I began to fear for the workers safety. "Should I help?," I questioned myself. Then I thought if they are going to die then I'm going to die with them. All this self talk occurred in a matter of seconds as I sprinted to a manlift and donned my harness.

When a manlift drives fast, the boom bounces. There I was bouncing in the basket to the rhythm of the terrain, afraid of dying but afraid my crew was going to die. Tears came down my cheeks. I don't know if they were tears of courage or tears of fear. My foreman screamed, "I was wondering if you were going to show up!"

We finally pinned that platform down with a few bolts. Later on as I sat on a beam, tightening a bolt, I felt relief. I let down my guard. With another journeyman nearby, I pried on the bolt hole with all of my might to try and get the other holes to line up. Then, just as the day of my injury, my guard was down. I wanted to impress the lineman, again just as the day of my accident, so I pried with all of my might and the spud wrench cameout of the hole. All the force I was applying was suddenly released and suddenly I was falling off the beam from 20 feet in the air. Luckily, the lineman caught me from my fall. We went back to work.

The last moment I was scared for my life, during my apporenticeship, was the week before my accident. It is difficult to explain some linework to those that aren't familiar with it so I drew some pictures. Also I need to explain that it is not common for an apprentice to work alone on energized lines and neither is it common for a crew with less than three people to work on energized lines. In the town of Kremmling, Colorado, however it is legal for both an apprentice to work on a line by himself and to work an energized line in a crew of two.

I wasn't aware of the different  rules in Kremmling and when the other apprentice left to do his Journeyman's test. I thought for sure we woulkd either not work or do work that wasn't energized. My foreman ate breakfast with me at the Moose Cafe. This was unusual as he stopped eating breakfast with us a couple weeks ago but more surprising to me was when he informed me that we were going to energized work. Not only would we do energized work but we would do the most difficult pole on that particular line, the corner pole.

A corner pole is where the line makes a 90 degree angle, or corner. We would keep the line hot but take ou the transformer. Then we would move one side of the energized, or hot line, from the old pole to the new pole. Next, the other side would be moved.

The first side was the hard side because to keep the line hot, we would need to use a mechanical jumper that was long enough to reach the line when it was attached to the new pole (red line represents mechanical jumper or mack). Not only did the mack need to reach the line at it's new position but it needed to be coiled so that it didn't dangle and touch anything else. Then we would cut the actual jumper(light blue curved line touching both lines) which would send all the energy through the mechanical jumper.
I would put on my gloves and sleeves(orange) and then as the line went up, I would uncoil the mechanical jumper. In order to come off the new pole, a grip(purple), a device designed to clamp down on a line when force is pulled on the loop in the grip, was put on the line and a rope(yellow) tied to it. The rope went from the grip to a sheave(yellow circle), which redirected the rope down the pole. At the bottom of the pole was another sheave that redirected the rope to the towball on a pickup truck. Once the rope was pulled by the truck, the line would come loose on the rope end of the grip. I would unpin the wire from the insulator.

So I got a loose end of wire, uncoiling of a mack and to add to that I would attach a helper block with a grip from the wire to the new pole. When pulled, the helper block would take the line up to the new pole. In linework they call this a 'cluster f@#&'. I'm doing what seems like a million things at once while always keeping my eye on this dangerous rattle snake that could bite me with 14,400 volts.
Once the wire was released from the old pole and pulled up to the new pole, I woulkd pin the wire to the new insulator. At one point my foreman mumbled, in response to a question of mine, "You just want to do it your way because you think you are so smart." Little did he know that I was in a mini panic with all that was going on. I snapped back, "No I don't think I know everything! If you just tell me what to do I'll do it!"

The few houses on that transformer finally got their power back after about six hours. My feet, which on a normal winter day in Kremmling were pretty cold, were sweating. My brain was probably sweating out my nose.

Of course I could have said, "No!" But for one I was an apprentice and an apprentice just does what he is told. The other thing was that when an apprentice says no there are repercussions. I was also raised to be a team member and put the team before me, just like my sister going in to work to help a coworker. Last but not least it is ingrained in me, being of Samoan descent, to be obedient.

There were many other times when I could have died but it seems like these three stand out to me as times when I did something scary and then let down my guard and had a near miss. These times that stand out as an exit sign in neon lights, where I could have seen the warning and escaped my life changing event.  The last one I shared was the scary part before my accident. After that day, I let down my guard a little bit and instead of a near miss, it was a hit.